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Slow Start

The big picture-book history of the Hollywood Bowl -- Tales of Summer Nights -- is full of happy memories. In times long gone there were stage spectacles: A Midsummer Night‘s Dream with Mickey Rooney as Puck, Die Walkure with the Valkyries riding their horses down the surrounding hillsides, a Carmen billed as ”The World’s Greatest Production“ (possibly true). Last week‘s Aida was, alas, none of the above.

The cast, in evening clothes, lined up along the front of the stage. The only authentic touch was the Aida, Alessandra Marc, who is constructed along lines comparable to Egypt’s pyramids. Behind the singers, out of any eye contact with them, John Mauceri conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Pacific Chorale. That‘s not the same as saying that he conducted the opera. It’s also not the same as saying that any degree of justice was done to Verdi, who depends not only on good solo singing but on a sizzling sense of ensemble in which all parts make up a splendid whole. It struck me as strange, in fact, that at the Gala Concert for the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, two nights later, there was quite a good use of live television projection on a big screen above the stage, so that when Marilyn Horne sang ”Over the Rainbow“ -- which, so help me, she did -- you could hear her resonant tones and watch the tonsils that were producing them.

I don‘t necessarily want to watch tonsils during an opera at the Bowl (or anywhere else). It seems to me, however, that if the management could send out visual thrills with Carmen or Walkure long before the days of the TV camera, it is shortchanging audiences now (at up to $100 a pop on this particular night) with the sad sight of a lot of singers in white tie wandering at loose ends on that big stage with the approximate sounds of grand opera somewhere behind them. Of dynamic balance between solo singers and the forces under Mauceri there was none discernible; it was almost as if every soloist had an individual volume control, with license to twiddle the knobs ad lib. It all turned out to be a good argument for staying at home with the records; it’s bad news when a live performance produces that as its final impression.

The performance itself wasn‘t all that much to sing about, for that matter. The lower voices carried the night: Catherine Keen as a gutsy Amneris, Philip Skinner as the Chief Priest Ramfis, and the veteran Donnie Ray Albert -- a splendid Porgy in his day -- as Amonasro. Richard Margison, the Radames, maintained an even dynamic level, somewhere between loud and louder, throughout the evening.

Saddest of all was the performance of Alessandra Marc in the title role. Like most people who were blown away by her sheer force -- ”volume,“ if you prefer -- when she first came on the scene in the mid-’80s, I found her not only exciting but excitingly promising. In New York I heard her in an interesting repertory -- the Shostakovich 14th Symphony, for example, and some oddball Richard Strauss operas that nobody else wanted to bother with. Then she seems to have caught the fancy of that coterie of opera-going creeps who yell themselves hoarse over sacred monsters and choose to ignore such minor matters as musicianship. The worst of this, in Marc‘s case, is that at a relatively young 43 she has become the careless -- nay, the slovenly -- singer that you expect to hear, very far down the line, from aging divas fighting off reality. No major artist, as Marc once was, should have allowed herself the squallings, the lumpy phrasings, the wanderings from pitch that she bestowed on this audience.

From his podium, Mauceri delivered congenial, witty but deadly accurate plot summaries before each act. Alan Chapman delivered more wit and information in the first of the pre-concert talks that are now scheduled before most of the Bowl’s classical programs. Add to this the printed notes by the bright young John Mangum, one of the Philharmonic‘s excellent freelancers. Verdi’s marvelous opera may have suffered in the actuality, but it was, at least, flawlessly documented.

By that curious marketing mumbo jumbo that nobody has ever plausibly explained, the Bowl‘s real opening night came two days later. (You knew it was the real opening because of the great spray of balloons -- biodegradable, we were assured -- that was released just before the concert.) That, alas, turned out to be the evening’s liveliest event. Emmanuel Krivine conducted, starting with the most ”serious“ performance of Gershwin‘s An American in Paris I’ve ever heard -- meticulous but joyless and, despite the music‘s immense fund of invention, more than somewhat dull. The pall was then prolonged as Susanne Mentzer came on to take a misdirected stab at three Gershwin songs. Denyce Graves, who was listed as soloist -- and who would have known exactly what to do with these songs -- had dropped out for reasons of health. Surely Mentzer, the substitute singer, could have come up with a substitute selection -- as she did after intermission with an elegant traversal of Ravel’s Sheherazade songs.

Does this all sound as if I‘ve had a lousy time at the Bowl so far? Maybe so, but not entirely. At the aforementioned Hall of Fame Gala there were pre-fireworks fireworks in a closing set by the indestructible Stevie Wonder. And in the first of the Wednesday-night jazz concerts -- another ”opening night,“ you might say -- I let myself be introduced to the extraordinary bass playing and band leadership of the Cuba-born, New York--based legendary Cachao, for some 90 minutes’ worth of pure, incendiary musical joy. On such occasions you know what the Bowl stands for in this city. Besides, next week they‘re doing the Beethoven Ninth.

Obiter dictum: For once there is good news from the ailing record industry. The Sony disc of music by Kaija Saariaho, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and with Dawn Upshaw and Gidon Kremer among the soloists, over which I waxed ecstatic some months ago (from the promotional pre-release disc), was then delayed due to copyright disputes concerning the printed text. Those matters have now been settled, and the disc is due in late August.


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